File Name: Speak, Okinawa: A Memoir
Author : Elizabeth Miki Brina (Goodreads Author)
ISBN : 9780525657347
Format : Hardcover 304 pages
Genre : Autobiography, Memoir, Nonfiction, Cultural, Japan, Biography Memoir, Biography, Book Club, Asia, Literature, Asian Literature,
Rating: really liked it
Beginning with the Battle of Okinawa, this memoir tells how Brina's grandmother survived during times of war's devastation and her mother's birth after the island was wrecked.
Daughter of a Japanese woman and American soldier, Brina, as a mixed race person, was often afraid of loneliness, not belonging and disappointing. She endured racism in her early ages and wanted her mother to be like other Americans. Beyond the language barrier, the clash of culture and history lingered between mother and daughter, widening the gap amongst them while Brina had mixed feelings about her mother. She grew up ashamed of her Japanese descent and it wasn't until Brina was an adult that she sought to connect with her Japanese heritage.
Brina also details her mother's hard life as an immigrant, describing the insecurities and helplessness. Same as the daughter, her mother suffered with (not) belonging. Some chapters felt like opening her mother's already-healed wound. As a reader, I empathized with both mother's struggles and daughter's recklessness. In other segments, Brina paints the experiences with her protective and cool father. We get to hear stories about war from his perspective and understand his internalized obsession with honor. Ultimately, we see the author's willingness to understand her parents' (love) story.
Later, Brina guides us into a journey of exploration of Japan in its intimacy, vividly showcasing the beauty and cultural/historical significance of cities, buildings and nature. I was immersed into Okinawan history, a place heavily imprinted by Japan, US and China, not to mention its particular connection with Japan.
In the battle of Okinawa, we feel pain, harm and destruction. Even though I found myself interested in the Japanese history, some parts were dense and hard to read.
My critiques are that, with glimpses of past and present throughout the novel, the transitions weren't always smooth. While I lost interest at times towards the end, the ending made me miss my mother.
SPEAK, OKINAWA is an intimate and vulnerable memoir that explores the life and struggles of a biracial woman and at the same time, allows us a deep look into Okinawa/Japan. I applaud Brina for her openness to deliver raw emotions and I recommend this memoir for readers wanting to read more about Asian American experience and Japan.
[ I received an ARC from the publisher - Knopf publishing - in exchange for an honest review ]
Rating: it was amazing
“These are the first lessons we are taught in preschool. Which one is not like the others? We are taught to match. Colors with corresponding colors, shapes with corresponding shapes, fruits with other fruits, a tree does not belong in the group labeled ‘animal’. We are taught that sameness is correct. Sameness is desired.”
There are perhaps many paths one can choose when writing a memoir.
The majority of memoirs offer glimpses into the writer without ever really exposing the parts of themselves really close to the bone. The parts that cause you to have sleepless nights. The parts that when you look in the mirror you wish that it was someone else, anyone else, looking back at you. In short, most memoirs are varying degrees of safe.
This is not that kind of memoir.
In contrast, it is a litany of pain. Of disappointment. Of regret.
There are very few respites from any of it to be found here. Each time Brina’s life and pain seems to have bottomed out and I think I can finally come up for some air, there is always more.
Perhaps even more striking is that there is in truth, very little extraordinary about her life. Her pain is found in the ordinary indignities and humiliations we all more or less have to deal with at some point in our lives.
A mother who moved to America with her father in her early 20’s who spoke no English and felt isolated and homesick to the point that she would get blackout drunk more often than not to dull the pain:
“My mother and I speak different languages. Her native language is Japanese. My native language is English. This might seem like a mundane fact about us. It’s not. It dictates everything. Because even though my mother understands and speaks English at a highly functional level, there are places inside me she can’t reach, nuances of thought and emotion I can’t express in words that make sense to her."
“Sometimes my mother got very drunk. She would call her mother and sisters in Okinawa, talk on the phone for hours, then hang up and burst into tears. For a long time, I thought my mother was weak. Because she couldn’t speak English very well or read. Because she was afraid of pools and neighbors. Because she got drunk and sobbed unconsolably, and had to be carried, sometimes dragged, to bed. I didn’t realize then that she couldn’t change history, that history wasn’t her fault. That she could never escape the legacy of defeat, of trauma, perpetuated by her very own husband and daughter. That I could never escape, either. Now, whenever I try to comprehend her loneliness, I am completely overwhelmed by her strength. She must have longed for that small child in the photographs. She must have ached from missing me.”
A father who like her mother was loving, but showed his own frustration with his life by often being at turns either withdrawn or overly protective of her and her mom (there is a funny story about when the author was a teenager and her dad, worried when she wasn’t home on time, downloaded her cell phone records online and called the last number he found to find her. Overprotective perhaps, but also she recognizes later, endearing).
“But I also remember the countless times I needed those phone calls. How his voice gave me strength, motivation to ‘carpe diem’. How his voice gave me comfort, reassurance that my mistakes weren’t so bad or consequential. I remember the countless times I called him sobbing, anxious, on the verge of panic, at one, two, three o’clock in the morning. He always answered. As I got older, thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two years old, I weaned him to one phone call a day, then one phone call every other day, and then, finally, to one text a day and one phone call a week. Except sometimes, he cheats. I try not to let myself get too upset or annoyed. I think about how, after my father’s gone, I won’t get those phone calls anymore. The thought fills me with dread. I’ll miss them.”
Both of her parents, were abused as children by their parents.
Reading about her not understanding her father emotionally, her mother both emotionally and linguistically was physically painful at times. Many of us have uses with our parents at some point in our lives but for most of us we do not have to grapple with our mother or father coming from a completely different world than ours. Watching her respond to the stresses in her life in the way many teenagers did, by acting out was also difficult to read. Drinking, smoking, letting herself be sexually exploited by anyone who showed her the littlest affection by the age of 14, not to mention the myriad identity issues wrapped up in being a girl who just wanted to assimilate but resented and often hated her mom for physically reminding her that she never could, made me more than once wonder how much more of this sadness I could take. And yet I continued.
I continued mainly because I came to really care about this scared and confused little girl.
I cared about the woman in her 20’s who seemed to be engaging in the same reckless behavior and self loathing that she had as a child.
I cared about the woman in her 30’s who clearly still struggled, but had begun to see some daylight in her life. Someone who had begun to see the damage and pain she caused her mother, her father, and those around her who loved her and was beginning to, most importantly, learn how to love herself..
I saw someone filled with sadness and regret who knew there was so much that could never be undone but was searching for wats to make things right with the time she had left.
I saw all this and was filled with so much admiration and respect for her.
This however is not only her story. This memoir’s true brilliance is found in how she ties the story of Okinawa, a place she spent a short time in as a child, and then only in several visits later in life, to her own. As her story unfolds, Okinawa transforms from a place she resents, hates as the symbol of her mother and the obstacle to her being a “normal” American girl. The Okinawa of her childhood memories is a dirty, impoverished place that she wishes would go away. Not unlike her own inner emotional state as a young adult. Yet as she gets older, she begins to admire the strength of Okinawa (and perhaps her own) as it survives humiliation after humiliation from the Chinese, from the Japanese, from the Americans. Okinawa doesn’t simply survive, but finds happiness in community and family. Much in the same way as she later begins to appreciate her own family. By the end of this memoir, Okinawa and the author are inextricably linked as shared inheritors of suffering yes, but also of strength, perseverance, and even happiness in the face of hardship.
“We are islands and we are people. We are people who can’t remember how we got here. Or why we came here. Some of us came with the current and some of us came with the winds. Some of us came from the north, from Japan.”
One final and remarkable thing here is the narrative structure Brina uses. The chapters alternate between stark lists of historical facts about Okinawa (some extremely hard to read), the story of her mother, her father (the most stunning is a chapter inside a chapter that alternates between her parents honeymoon in Okinawa in 1975 and her trip there with them 30 years later. She tells parallel stories about the present and how she imagines they spoke to each other 30 years earlier), herself and her childhood.
Perhaps most controversial to some would be the fictionalized portions of the memoir in which trying to emphasize some of the hardships Okinawans faced at the end of WW2, she places herself in a cave circa 1945 as American mortar shells rain down on her. She takes the voice of Okinawa which she admits she has little claim to or experience of, and makes it her own. She also takes the voice of a member of Commodore Matthew Perry’s staff as they land in Okinawa before pushing on to Japan, raping, looting, and humiliating the people and forcing American hegemony on them.
It is to say the least a very ambitious attempt at creative writing and while personally I wasn’t always comfortable with her appropriation of these distant voices, or the words she put in their mouths, (I want to sit down and discuss these portions of the memoir with Paisley Rekdal!) I certainly can understand why she did so.
But this is just a minor point that in no way detracts from the sum of the memoir. A memoir that is as raw, honest, and revealing as any you are likely to read. When Brina has for example her first conversation with her mother in Japanese, on her mother’s 69th birthday, it may be only about what they had for dinner, but deep down they know it means so much more. It means everything to them both. It is truly one of the more beautiful scenes I can remember reading.
It is certainly not a memoir that is easy to read. By the time you turn the final page it will have taken a lot of you. However, it also gives you back more than you could have ever expected, rewarding you with a fundamentally human story. A story of suffering yes, but also its corollary, the ever present hope of redemption.
Rating: it was amazing
In this book Elizabeth Miki Brina weaves her life story with the story of Okinawa. She also goes back and forth between the past (her childhood) and the present (her adulthood). She begins by writing from the point of view of her young self, a second generation American caught between two worlds. As a product of growing up in the US and she gravitated heavily towards her dad. This meant she struggled to connect with her mom, and not just because of the language barrier. As many children of immigrants she also struggled with her identity, rebelled a lot in her teenage years and had a hard time finding herself.
In between the personal chapters we get to learn about the history of the island from the beginning, to when the Chinese came over in the early 14th century and called them “Liu Chiu” which turned to “Ryukyu”, to their forced allegiance to Japan, to when the first Americans showed up in the 19th century, to the WWII: Battle of Okinawa, to the present day.
We also get to know the authors parents Kyoko and Arthur Brina. We get to read their life stories, hear about their unique quirks and struggles, their marriage and their relationship with their only daughter Elizabeth.
“I used to deny my parents’ love for each other, because I didn’t understand it, because it didn’t fit some mold, didn’t align with some image of love I had conjured. I thought that love, true love, should involve something more than just commitment. My father never thought of leaving. Only of letting her leave. My mother never thought of leaving. Only threatening to leave. Maybe love is choosing to stay. Maybe love is choosing to stay every day until the choice becomes permanent”.
Obviously the life story of someone needs to be interesting enough to write a memoir and the Brina family truly delivered! I loved the growth we get to see in each of them and I cannot end this post without saying that I cried ugly tears at the end. To see Brina and her moms relationship bloom was just wonderful 😭!
“I am an Okinawan story. I am an American story. I wish I could locate a precise point of transformation, the pivotal moment when my mother and I finally reconciled. But that’s not how we apologize and forgive. The healing is gradual, cumulative. It happens as we begin to recognize our mothers not as mothers, but as women who endure husbands and daughters. It happens as we begin to accept and appreciate our very own exquisite uniqueness, and everyone we hold responsible. It happens now as I write.”
I also need to add that I loved the way the book was outlined! I enjoyed the back and forths, the way we don’t meet the parents until the middle of the book, the comparing their Japan honeymoon in 1975 to their Japan vacation in 2015. It kept me interested the whole time. Have I mentioned I rarely read non-fiction because they bore me? Did not happen with this one!!
As someone who considers themselves lucky to have gotten to call Okinawa home for six years, thanks to my husband serving in the Marine Corps, I felt it important then to immerse myself in the culture and learn the history of Okinawa. We’ve been gone 2.5 years now and my love for the island is still strong. It’s always hard to read about the long history between the US military and Okinawa, but needed. At the end of the book the author lists some of the thousands of incidents and crimes by military members, she mentions the plans to relocate Futenma Air Station up north, the countless petitions to the US government and the protests, and ends with a call of action.
“...America, as we speak you are dumping sand and soil into our ocean. Not for our defense. Not for our protection. America, it’s not too late. No matter how far you’ve gone down the wrong path, it’s not too late. Turn back. Turn back. Free Okinawa!”
It is my hope that the US military returns their land to the people of Okinawa and that in 2050 when the treaty ends they finally get to be free.
Yes, the book is hard to read at times and not just the parts that describe the war. This is a book about the struggles of being an immigrant in the US, coming to terms with your identity no matter how long it takes, it’s also about apologizing and moving forward. I cannot recommend this book enough and I’m excited to add it to my Okinawa book stack!
Rating: it was amazing
From the first sentence, I was immersed in the story about the author's relationship with her mom, the complications, and her family. I learned so much about Okinawa, and the way the author wove in the history was effortless, like she was teaching and sharing at the same time.
The book is essentially about a girl repairing her relationship with her mother. It delves into the repairing process and the discovery of her learning who her mother is and how she met her father, who was a soldier stationed on the island that was an occupied US territory. These imperialistic origins were embedded in the family dynamics.
One passage touched me when the author said, "Yet these memories are impossible to forget regardless of whether we actually lived through them. I believe they stay in our bodies as sickness, like addiction, as poor posture, or a tendency toward apology, as a deepened capacity for a sadness or anger, as determination to survive, a relentless, tempered optimism. I believe they are inherited, passed onto us like brown eyes or the shape of a nose." I thought that was beautiful in the way she talked about inherited trauma.
To listen to my interview with the author, go to my podcast at:
Rating: it was amazing
Elizabeth Miki Brina’s mother was working as a nightclub hostess on U.S.-occupied Okinawa when she met the American soldier who would become her husband. The language barrier and power imbalance that defined their early relationship followed them to the predominantly white, upstate New York suburb where they moved to raise their only daughter. Decades later, the author comes to recognize the shame and self-loathing that haunt both her and her mother, and she attempts a form of reconciliation, not only to come to terms with the embattled dynamics of her family but also to reckon with the injustices that reverberate throughout the history of Okinawa and its people.
Rating: really liked it
I love this title, the quality writing, the parallel stories - one wartime one contemporary, the themes, the history, the upheaval and the reckoning, absolutely everything about this book except its beginning. Until I realized where it was going I was distracted by how terrible I felt for Kyoko, Elizabeth's Okinawan mom. But I realize that discomfort I went through was vital to the reading experience, which ends up being profoundly moving and rewarding.
As a half-Japanese American myself, I fully relate to much of Brina's mixed feelings about growing up mixed race, traveling between cultures, and the associated linguistic challenges; also brilliance like this: "Half of me uses the other half to maintain innocence". Having lived in Japan for 8 years altogether, and working on news at Japan's national broadcasting network for 4 of them, I thought I had a pretty good working knowledge of Okinawa's history and the mistreatment they endured from mainland Japanese and US occupying forces; but no. Brina's clear and comprehensive timeline-style of highlighting facts and demonstrating actual residual effects via her own family members brings a history of injustice to light, with great and lyrical impact.
Brina's sincerity and honesty are at times mind boggling, but I am so grateful. Even though they're not central to the theme of apology and atonement, I appreciate the brutally open way Brina incorporates ugly factors such as alcohol bingeing, and biased media in to her family story, even admitting to lying on her resume. This book must be read through to its ending, which slayed me with its absolute beauty.
Speak, Okinawa goes on sale Feb 23, 2021 and I thank Edelweiss+ for the ARC.
Rating: it was ok
Was intrigued by the memoir of this woman who has had to struggle with having a Vietnam war vet father and a Japanese mother. A mother of whom the author is ashamed of growing up. It's difficult for Brina as she feels no connection to her mother's heritage but also does not pass in upstate New York, where her parents settle. She tries to navigate life, growing up, her identity, her relationship with her parents, and more.
The book interested me partially because I know someone who is not unlike the author. Half white and half non-white, this person was also ashamed of their mom growing up. It was not something I really understood (and neither did this person), so I wondered what Brina's experiences might tell me.
Setting aside my personal interest, I honestly did not understand the appeal of the book. It's a memoir written in fragments of memories, often moving back and forth in time. There is an odd sense of disconnection (although that's probably not unusual given what the author is covering) and it just felt like reading through someone else's journal entries.
There's definitely a lot to consider: immigration, racism, misogyny, the perhaps uneven dynamic between her parents, the way children can be extremely cruel to each other for being different, and more. But after awhile I just did not understand what the author was trying to do and it felt more like a therapy session than anything else.
I'm sure there are many who would enjoy this book and relate more to the author. Personally I found this skippable.
Rating: it was amazing
A beautiful book about the difficulties involved with growing up as a mixed race individual. Elizabeth Miki Brina speaks elegantly about the feeling of belonging to two very distinct worlds, and how often times, this duality of belonging causes a person to feel adrift with nowhere to truly call home. Speak, Okinawa deals with themes of forgiveness, apology, guilt, language, and the importance of bearing witness to your own personal histories. She paints a unique portrait of the immigrant experience through her meditations on her mother's life, and she creates a vivid image of Okinawa, an island rich with history that is both uplifting and devastating. To read Speak, Okinawa is to immerse yourself in Brina's upbringing. As a person who also grew up mixed race (half Japanese, even!), I found Brina's book to be extremely validating and comforting. Her experience was not entirely my experience, but I was able to relate to her unique perspective in ways that made me feel truly seen. This is a must read if you are looking for unique stories about Japan, Asian Americans, and the importance of honoring your family's history.
Rating: really liked it
Such a beautiful, candid, painful memoir (and incredibly lovely audiobook). Brina writes so honestly and bravely about her feelings about her mother, and she shows her father as the loving and challenging person he is. The history of Okinawa shocked me, and though it sometimes took me a minute to swing between the history and her personal memoir, I learned so much.
Rating: it was amazing
“It took too long for me to admire my mother’s common sense and practical knowledge…to accept and appreciate my mother’s English. Her simplicity and directness.”
These words set the stage for Elizabeth Miki Brina’s SPEAK, OKINAWA, the memoir of the daughter of an Okinawan woman and a Vietnam War veteran. Brina’s parents met while her father was stationed in Okinawa. Neither of them spoke the other’s language; when they wrote each other letters, they had to find translators for them. The language barrier didn’t hinder their marriage, and Brina’s mother left her life of poverty to be an American soldier’s wife and live a comfortable life.
Brina’s father pushed his wife to learn English, and, spending more than half her life in America, she wound up doing so, but it would never be her native tongue. Brina voices her struggle growing up with a mother with whom she didn’t share a language, one who pronounced her name differently than native English speakers would. She atones for her shame in her writing and acknowledges the practicality of using words so effectively like her mother. Anyone can see this while reading SPEAK, OKINAWA. Brina uses simple, direct language, often in the subject-verb-object format, to her advantage in order to paint blunt pictures, which reminds readers of her mother. While she may give Brina seemingly curt advice on breakups --- telling her to just move on because a boy does not love her --- the words are direct and true.
This is the approach that Brina has taken to her memoir, which is not just about her life, but also about Okinawa. As its title suggests, this is her attempt at giving Okinawa the voice it has needed throughout history. Between chapters, she switches narratives from her perspective and the Okinawans --- there is even a chapter from the point of view of Americans serving under Commodore Perry in the 1850s. Each setting Brina paints is honest and, at times, brutal, whether it be a depiction of the Battle of Okinawa or an analysis of her parents’ marriage.
It is important to remember why Okinawa’s story is relevant to Brina’s personal one. Of course, there is the simple answer: Her mother is Okinawan. Then the more complex answer: There is a lesson in the memoir and its themes, whether it is that Brina wants to make up for her internalized racism and ingratitude growing up, or that she wants to give her voice to a people who are deemed voiceless. Just as Brina mourns her inability to fully connect with her mother because of their language barrier, Brina decides to share the pains and joys of Okinawa to her western audience, the same West that helped Japan silence the island chain. We begin to understand a history that was unshared to us before, as well as its present issues.
Brina’s awareness of her faults is as refreshing as it is hard to read. It can feel like we are reading about our own mistakes, but she does this to show that it is not too late to turn back and correct our wrongs. SPEAK, OKINAWA is a beautiful request, from the prodigal daughter of an oppressed land, to take the time to listen to one another.
Reviewed by Margaret Rothfus
Rating: it was amazing
An all around great read for me. I think what was particularly impressive was the way the author wove the story of Okinawa into her own family story and the parallels that appear. And it is hard to tell which story is more shocking than the other. The author's family could be labeled as dysfunctional simply by virtue of the obvious communication issues and the environment that the author grew up in. Yet, family love shines through and it is clear that the author and other family members had very mixed emotions and actions going on.
For anyone in a bicultural, biracial family this is going to evoke some feelings and memories of their own. The writing is starkly honest, but beautifully constructed. It is hard to reconcile the insightful writing of this tale with the picture the author paints of herself. She is still young and I ended up wondering what her life holds for her going forward. I suspect this will become a classic in the genre.
Rating: it was amazing
“During proceedings leading to that day, the day we were annexed, Ulysses S. Grant, as a citizen, as a consultant, mediated between representatives from Japan and China. He determined that we, the Lew Chewans, soon to become Okinawans, exhibited more “ethnic affinity” with the Japanese, therefore should belong to Japan.
We were not invited to attend these proceedings. We were not asked for our opinion.
Since 1609, we had already been a colony of Japan, in practice, in secret. We bowed to the Emperor, obeyed orders, paid tribute, changed our names, changed the way we spoke. But we still had our land.”
Elizabeth Miki Brina
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Rating: it was amazing
This memoir tells about the author’s life and how she struggled to find herself. It also tells some of the history of Okinawa and that country’s relationship to other countries (China, Japan, the US) that have occupied it throughout its history. This memoir holds a light up to several issues including white privilege, US foreign relations, and basic overall respect (for others as well as for self). I listened to the audiobook version of this book and liked it so much that I may have to read the physical version of it at some point in order to catch things I may have missed.
Rating: really liked it
Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina is a memoir about Elizabeth's struggle to understand her mother—about her cruelty when she was young, and her guilt once she grew up, about her mother and father's complicated relationship and the way Elizabeth's views of it shifted. It was extremely educational about Okinawa and its exploitation by Japan and ongoing destruction and exploitation by the US. I thought the memoir could have been much shorter, finding some parts of it very repetitive, but still found it an intriguing read.
Rating: it was amazing
The nation of my birth.
Such an interesting book on a personal level. I was born in Okinawa the daughter of an American army officer and an American teacher of English. I have all the pictures of that beautiful place but having moved there at around age 2 I don’t remember much. This book has been extreme illuminating about the real price of the United States in Okinawa.